Will crew chief Steve Letarte be able to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in victory lane at Talladega this Sunday for the first time in nearly 10 years? (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Talladega: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 10-year winless streak at the track he used to dominate?

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As hard as it may seem to believe, it’s been nearly 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr., last won a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

That’s 10 years at a track where Junior once dominated so much that many of his fans started calling NASCAR’s largest oval “The House that Junior Built” (even though his father won 10 times there in his own career).

The younger Earnhardt won five of his first 10 starts at the massive and sprawling 2.66-mile layout at Talladega, including four wins in a row (fall 2001 through spring 2003, as well as fall 2004).

Junior was essentially the Jimmie Johnson of his day in the way he dominated at Talladega. It wasn’t just a track, it was HIS track.

It got to the point where the majority of fans that attended every Cup race there were decked out in some kind of red-and-white Junior regalia, be it a ball cap, t-shirt, jacket or similar, all proudly touting the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet and the team he drove for, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

While toasting him with a Budweiser, of course!

But since his last win there in 2004, it seems like good fortune has turned its back on Junior.

In the 18 races since then, Earnhardt has managed just three top-five finishes (including two runner-ups) and two other top-10 showings.

That’s it.

In the 13 other starts he finished 20th or worst eight times, including recording four of his five career DNFs there.

What’s happened to Junior? Why can’t he go back to the way he used to be at ‘Dega, without question the most dominating driver there from 2001 through 2005 and when the now-defunct DEI was the crème de la crème of restrictor plate racing.

But it wasn’t all about Junior, either, at DEI.

During that same five-year period, Michael Waltrip earned all four of his career Cup wins (in 775 career starts). Three came at Daytona (including two in the Daytona 500 – with his first coming in the tragic 2001 race in which Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash while trying to protect Waltrip’s and Junior’s 1-2 finish) and the other win occurred at Talladega.

The common denominator between Waltrip and Junior: 11 of their 12 combined wins came on plate tracks while both drove for DEI – and those 11 wins came in a span of four seasons (2001-04).

Add in the winless-yet-still-productive 2005 season and the former teammates also combined for five runner-up finishes and four third-place showings in those five seasons, for a total of 20 races between them.

All-told, Junior has eight wins on plate tracks, five at Talladega and three at Daytona.

So why has Junior struggled at plate tracks since moving from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008? How is it that he’s managed just one plate track win (this year’s season-opening Daytona 500) since 2004?

Or, looking at the glass half-full, with his win at Daytona two months ago, is Junior poised to go off on another DEI-like plate track winning run with another triumph this Sunday in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega?

If he were to do so, it would make Junior the second driver (Joey Logano did so with his second win of 2014 this past Saturday at Richmond) to cement his entry into this year’s expanded and revised Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When Junior moved to HMS, predictions and expectations were both high. He had uncanny resources and something that he never had at DEI: an organization with a history of Cup championships.

At the time Junior changed his Cup address, HMS had seven championships to its credit. Today, it has 11.

If Earnhardt were to win Sunday’s race, he may finally be able to finish what he started way back in 2001 when he won his first plate race: win again at ‘Dega and end the season with his first Cup championship, as well.

He’s long overdue for both.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Pascal Wehrlein picks 94 as number for Formula 1 career

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 23:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during Formula One testing at the Red Bull Ring on June 23, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Pascal Wehrlein has confirmed that he will race with no. 94 for the entirety of his Formula 1 career after being unveiled as Manor Racing’s first driver for 2016 on Wednesday.

Wehrlein became the youngest ever champion in the history of the DTM in 2015, prompting Mercedes to seek out a place on the F1 grid for its junior prospect.

After a long winter of negotiations, Wehrlein was announced by Manor on Wednesday ahead of the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona in two weeks’ time.

Since 2014, all drivers racing in F1 are required to pick a number that remains theirs throughout their career in the series, with the no. 1 allocated to the world champion should they wish to use it.

Wehrlein confirmed shortly after the announcement that he would be using no. 94 in F1 – the year of his birth and the number he used in DTM.

“I will carry the #94 again which I ran in DTM last year,” Wehrlein told reporters. “It’s just because I was born in 1994.”

Just one seat remains on the F1 grid for 2016 following Wehrlein’s confirmation, with the identity of his Manor teammate still to be decided.

Kevin Magnussen out to prove ‘many points’ with Renault

Driver Kevin Magnussen of Denmark, poses during the presentation of the Renault R.S.16 at the Renault's technocentre in Guyancourt, west of Paris, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. French carmaker Renault returned to Formula One as a racing team after agreeing to take over Lotus, which had struggled with financial costs last season.  (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
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Kevin Magnussen hopes that he can prove “many points” during his second stint in Formula 1 with Renault following his split with McLaren at the end of last year.

Magnussen arrived in F1 at the beginning of 2014 off the back of an emphatic Formula Renault 3.5 title success, and made an immediate impression by finishing second on debut in Australia.

The Dane was unable to sustain this form throughout the rest of the season, leading to his demotion to reserve driver to make way for Fernando Alonso’s arrival.

Magnussen was released from his McLaren contract at the end of 2015, but landed on his feet by joining Renault for its first season back in F1 as a constructor following Pastor Maldonado’s departure.

“I had a season in 2014 with McLaren and I felt it went quite well pitched against a past world champion [Jenson Button],” Magnussen said.

“To be replaced the following year was tough even if the line-up the team used was very strong. I had been racing every year since I was six so to sit to the side certainly wasn’t part of my plan.”

Magnussen now hopes that he can prove a point to his doubters by impressing with Renault in 2016 where he will race alongside British rookie Jolyon Palmer.

“Hopefully I’ll prove many points. I’m extremely motivated after a whole year away,” Magnussen said.

“I’ve been sitting on the sideline during the races for so many weekends and I’m hungry to come back and prove my worth. I’ve raced my whole life and I’m extremely hungry and keen to get in a race car again and even more so with Renault Sport.

“Without racing last year I actually had more time to train and I feel very fit because of that. I’m physically ready. I’ve not had a lot of time in a race car but the time I had, I felt good.

“I was always surprised at how quickly I re-adapted to driving after time out of the car. I was pretty much immediately on the pace when I tested the Porsche Le Mans car and I’ve been on it whenever I’ve been in an F1 car. I’m ready.”

Conor Daly’s IndyCar gets painted

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Conor Daly
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Conor Daly will compete full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year in a ride for Dale Coyne Racing.

Daly will make laps in the No. 18 Honda sponsored by Jonathan Byrd’s. The 24-year-old driver tweeted out a picture today of his race car getting painted for the season, which starts on March 13.

Daly has six IndyCar races under his belt so far.

USF2000 reintroduces National Class for 2016

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The National Class is officially back in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series for 2016.

Yes, when Eric Filgueiras and Spencer Racing announced they’d be in the National Class, that kind of gave it away that the class would be back without it being formally introduced.

Luckily though, the series has released the news today. A formal release is below:

Drivers seeking to make their way onto the Mazda Road to Indy now have an alternate, lower-cost route onto the first rung, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, with today’s confirmation that the National Class will be returning in 2016.

The Mazda Road to Indy is unique in the world of auto racing, offering a scholarship-funded path all the way from karting via USF2000, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.

Eligible to drivers at least 20 years of age before or during the 2016 season, the National Class will be open to all Sports Car Club of America-legal FC (Formula Continental) cars, from any chassis manufacturer, dating back to 2000. Any aerodynamic devices approved by the SCCA are permitted, although in the interests of safety all cars must be fitted with a nosebox crash structure, wheel tethers, Staubli devices, approved head surrounds and seats and yellow light system as required by all other current USF2000 cars.

Cars will be permitted to run either the same 2.0-liter Mazda MZR engine per the USF2000 Championship Class regulations or sealed 2.0-liter Ford Zetec motors as prepared by Elite Engines or Quicksilver RacEngines with National Class mapping. Any SCCA-legal 6″ and 8″ wheels may be used, although all cars must run on Cooper tires.

Entry fees will be discounted 50 percent below the Championship Class rate, and each race winner will earn a free entry for an upcoming event in the same season. The second-place finisher will claim a 50 percent reduction in the entry fee for an upcoming race. In addition, race winners equipped with the MZR engine will take home a $1,000 award from Mazda.

As an added benefit and based on a minimum average car count of five entries per race weekend, the 2016 National Class champion will receive an “entry ticket” to the Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout in the fall of this year where champions of select junior level-open wheel and karting series from around the world will compete for a Mazda scholarship to enter the USF2000 Championship Class in 2017.

The point system will be the same used by the Masters Class (formerly Expert Class) in the Pro Mazda championship.

“We are excited to bring back the National Class and allow drivers to sample the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “RC Enerson began his path on the ladder system in the National Class. It’s a great first step onto the platform for many drivers, and we are excited to offer this year’s champion an entry into the Shootout as well as a full-season entry package to USF2000 in 2017 in either the Championship or National Class.”

The Mazda Road to Indy will head to Barber Motorsport Park for Spring Training on March 5 (Indy Lights) and 6/7 (USF2000/Pro Mazda). The 2016 season will kick off on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 11-13 in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.